Our Seattle office kicked off our very own book club this week (thanks to team Denver for the idea). Over the past month, we read The Hard Thing About Hard Things by Ben Horowitz. Horowitz tells the tale of his business ventures and is brutally honest about the trials and tribulations most entrepreneurs won’t put in print. He takes us through his experiences with founding, running, selling, buying, and managing a company. This book had a special place in BPR’s heart as we served as the agency of record for Opsware from the company’s early days as Loudcloud through its acquisition by HP.
Next up for the BPR-Seattle book club is The Martian so stay tuned!
Green is my favorite color—and you’d be hard pressed not to appreciate the hue, when after all, it represents so many great things: The environment, money, leafy vegetables, marijuana…
That last one is a more recent appreciation, one that the nation as a whole is just being to come around to embracing, or at the very least, granting their approval. With marijuana being pretty “green” on the legal market—pardon the pun—it’s an exciting time for the industry. In fact, it’s been compared to the early days of the railroad. It’s a newly discovered frontier – mysterious in that it’s unknown exactly where the future will lead, exhilarating in that it might be a risky investment, and wide open for those brave industry pioneers to stake a claim. This, of course, makes the industry an exciting opportunity for PR. As storytellers, the marijuana market is very much a ‘choose your own adventure’ novel —which story do you wish to tell? But in the same respect, if you choose the wrong one, it could end badly.
Taking on a marijuana client presented us with the perfect opportunity to really hit the ground running in this burgeoning industry. Being the No BS, brazen PR firm that we are, we accepted the challenge and signed our first marijuana client – Paper & Leaf, a retail cannabis store on Bainbridge Island.
Here are a few key takeaways we’d like to share since going green.
It’s not marijuana. It’s cannabis.
This was quite possibly the first rule we learned, and a tough habit to break. But be forewarned, to be taken seriously when speaking on the plant to the press or fellow members of the market, the word “marijuana” has the affect of dropping a vulgar curse word into the middle of your sentence. In many ways, the term marijuana has come to represent the plant’s ugly past as an illegal substance. In order to turn a new leaf, it needed a new name—which is where “cannabis” comes in. No one ever got arrested for carrying cannabis on his or her person.
It’s not one story. It’s many.
There isn’t just one story to tell with cannabis, and if you approach it like there is, you’ll run out of steam fast. Cannabis as an industry has many different facets,, and we’ve had the chance to explore many avenues of creativity through our work with Paper & Leaf.
We’ve pitched local press on the shop’s opening, we’ve pitched business press including a placement in Forbes on the unique aspects of owning a cannabis shop, we’ve pitched interior design pubs for the artistic aesthetics and atmosphere on how to make cannabis more approachable and welcoming, and we’ve pitched travel and tourism outlets on the idea that the State now has a new allure drawing in tourists curious about the face of legal retail cannabis. And of course, we’ve hit the cannabis specific pubs because, obviously. The list goes on.
It’s not illegal. But it’s not legal.
A big challenge we have faced alongside our client is that fact that as cannabis may be becoming more and more mainstream in certain areas of the country—it’s legalization is in the minority. There are still those fighting against it, and thus there are still those publications hesitant to support it by giving it space on the page. So while it can be challenging to pitch cannabis stories to the national press, it’s one we gladly accept and continue to tackle. Just like the early railroad engineers—we’re moving full steam ahead.
This is fancy phrase I like to use for not setting yourself or your team up for a predictable failure or busy work that doesn’t deliver value – two scenarios we unwittingly back ourselves into more times than we can count. Here are a few tips and tricks I’ve used to escape the foreseeable:
Don’t make promises you can’t keep. Your client thinks their latest announcement is Wall Street Journal front page worthy, but you know better. Don’t just nod, because in doing so you’re making a promise you can’t keep. You’ll have to answer for it at some point, so there is no time like the here and now to set proper expectations.
Don’t BS Press. Reporters are the world’s greatest bulls**t detectors. If you’re pitching something that’s a stretch and you know it, just don’t. Don’t spell out the obvious, give them a history lesson on the industry, or tell them what they already know. Also, if you know there is vaporware in there then it’s your responsibility to warn your client that coverage can cut both ways.
Don’t become the middleman. This applies to both media and clients alike. For example, if your client insists on a fact check for stories, encourage them to ask the reporter themselves on a briefing. It’s harder for the reporter to say no to the CEO than it is to the PR rep. At the same time, if you know two client spokespeople have different visions for a product announcement, you’ll want to encourage them to get on the same page BEFORE you start drafting a release around its launch.
Do forget change is inevitable. Vague is your friend. It can be a balancing act, but if in doubt it’s always better error on the side of less is more. For example, if your worried that press release you’re pitching might slip then give reporters a window for the announcement and don’t set an exact date they can get attached to. You can always go back in a follow up with the exact timing once it’s shored up. And instead of detailing everything in a product announcement pitch, use a teaser approach that hints at one or two features. You can then reveal more with each follow up.
Don’t measure up. In the interest of truth, let’s all be honest here in saying PR isn’t exactly something you can measure with the exactness of a ruler. Complexities aside, the reason is because every person perceives differently. A glowing review can translate into a sarcastic slam depending on one’s knowledge of the issue. The Onion figured that out a long time ago. So, don’t assume things. For example, my pet peeve is dictating sentiment to your client by telling them they’ve received “positive” coverage or that their quote was “right on point.” They can read, and if they disagree you’ll hear about it. Instead, keep feedback Switzerland and focused on the content and if a desired messaging made the cut.
Do KISS (Keep it simple stupid) and tell. A reporter recently shared that it often takes 3-5 emails just to book a briefing. That’s nuts to me. Anytime you can eliminate steps in a bloated process like this it’s a win. It also decreases the margin for error and the odds someone will no show for the call (awkward). This also applies to the next time your client wants to schedule a brainstorm. Always bring 3-5 max to the table, and be ready to justify your favorite. Too many choices, and you’ll double the time it takes to get a decision to move forward with the best one.
More than any one thing on this list though–trust your gut. If it doesn’t feel safe or right, it probably isn’t. Stop in that moment and think about what you can do now to mitigate any potential consequences of the decision if it does go south down the road. And if you find yourself in jail, facing the penalties and feeling the sting of regret, remember life’s greatest lessons are learned from failures. You never have to make the same mistake twice.
The people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do. ― Steve Jobs
This quote always reminds me of why we started Barokas PR 18 years ago. In our case, we wanted to influence the world of PR and erase the paradigm where agencies serve as a “yes man” to their clients. Fast forward to 2016, and we’ve made great strides. One of our new team members recently mentioned to me that our agency has a very different way of approaching PR. Of course, that was music to my ears. And the result of some trial and error, and a lot of love, sweat and tears.
Like any PR firm, we continue to evolve and I give all the credit to our team. In late January, we got together for our annual Winter All Hands. While the two-day event contains a line up of inspiring speakers, including journalists and former clients, I believe the most important element of the event is the time we spend bonding with our colleagues and exchanging ideas. It’s in moments like these, where I see our team inspired to push the bounds of PR and redefine how we pitch the media, build relationships and strategize with our clients.
Here are a few examples of how our team is changing the world of PR, one step at a time:
Walk the Talk:
As an agency, we are committed to avoiding all of those loathsome practices that give PR agencies a bad name. You know what I’m talking about. Bombarding the media through a ‘spraying and praying’ approach to pitching. Wasting time and money to build out a master media list of 100-200 contacts, but only a handful of which you should really pitch at any given time based on the relevancy of a pitch or news item. As an agency, we are committed to targeting the select media and influencers that will drive the most impact for our client and customizing our outreach to them. Carpet-bombing isn’t a word in our vocabulary (sorry Ted Cruz).
Death to Bad Pitches:
500 word essays. Sentence after sentence of buzzwords, jargon and clichés. Redundant paragraphs. A pitch addressed to your fellow reporter at InformationWeek when you write for InfoWorld. We’ve all seen the horror stories and it’s time to rid the world of bad PR pitches.
At Barokas PR, we aim to relate to reporters on a human level. You might be thinking, “but I have an enterprise tech client in the cloud computing space and it’s hard to relate to that.” BS. We all put our pants on one leg at a time – it’s possible to find a connection. For example, one of our AEs had the brilliant idea of playing a pitch off of the movie “Sex Tape” for one of our cloud clients that sells to large enterprises. Sex tapes – whether you have or haven’t made one (no I’m not judging), make headline news. Talk of them is prevalent in society and you can probably name a few celebs that wish they had never gone down that road. That makes it relatable. The movie purports that nobody understands the cloud and that it creates a lot of FUD – fear, uncertainty and doubt. We pitched an article to CNBC that debunked these myths, and voila, a few days later we had a tier 1 business press hit for our client.
Focus on Solutions, Not the Problem:
On a recent trip to Africa, my husband and I had the pleasure of getting to know the client services manager at the resort where we stayed in Mozambique. This king of customer service – aka Valentine – was one of the key reasons we had the best trip of our life vs. one that nearly ended with us checking out of the hotel and taking a boat to a resort on a nearby island. I’ll spare you the details (but start with a room hotter than a Bikram yoga class), and get to the point – he’s a shining example of the importance of customer service, whether you’re in hospitality or PR.
Valentine’s motto is “there are no problems, only solutions.” We’ve adopted this approach as our theme for 2016 as a constant reminder to keep our eye on the outcomes we can affect for clients. In the world of PR, where it feels like information and noise is coming at you from every direction, it’s easy to be distracted from a goal. A simple shift in mindset to focus on the solution vs. the myriad of things that may be pulling you away from it, leads to more productive conversations, and ultimately, better results for clients.
Well guys, here we are.
At a crossroads of our industry.
As newspapers fold and the media industry slowly deteriorates, PR flourishes. Three reps for every reporter. 4 to 1. It doesn’t really matter. It’s harder and harder to place coverage, we’re competing with one another and we’re resorting to titles like “PR Ninja” to stand out.
And we can accept that.
Continue to flash a toothy grin, kiss the asses of those who retain us and hock their latest strategic “industry-leading” this and that.
All of which we’d be happy to have the CEO talk about, under embargo.
We can churn and burn through clients and media.
We can continue, pitch by pitch, until we’re finished.
And then on to the next client, next reporter, next IOT device.
And we can stay here and get the shit kicked out of us by outsiders, annoyed media, bad PR Blog and the bad pitch that goes viral and is associated with us all.
We can accept that this is our lot in life.
That it’s our job to sell snake oil and we’re just doing it the best we can.
Or we can fight our way back into the light.
We can climb out of hell. One pitch, at a time.
I look around and I see these young faces in the industry,
and I think “We can be better.”
Social media guy – you can come up with content that isn’t just selling something else.
Media guy – you gotta step up, start hitting those reporters
with something that helps them as much as it helps your client.
New business guy – buddy, we gotta stop overselling.
Team, we can stop selling stuff. And start selling ideas.
We can build relationships, meaningful ones that extend beyond a launch
and shine through with tangible results. Results that give the end user something real.
This doesn’t come with shotgun outreach. It doesn’t come with sending everyone from ABC News through ZDNET the same email. They’ve received shit before. They can smell it. They can see it. For them, it’s an inbox flooded with it. All in the form of a recycled pitch.
In this game of pitches, the margin for error is so small.
I mean, deadlines, personal experience, breaking news.
One half second too late or too early, your pitch won’t make it.
One half second too slow or too fast, the reporter won’t read it.
The info we need is everywhere around us.
Info we need to build a relationship with the media.
In this industry, it’s the one who is willing to build meaningful relationships with reporters and provide valuable content that is going to get that hit.
In this industry, it’s the person who knows when news is news and shit is shit, and doesn’t try to sell them both the same, that is going to get that hit.
Now I can’t make you do it.
You gotta look at the person in the cube next to you.
Look into his eyes.
Now I think you are going to see a guy who will change his pitch.
You are going to see a girl
who will sacrifice her time to craft meaningful pitches and build
relationships with reporters because she knows when it comes down to it,
it’s that meaningful media relationship
that will make all the difference.
That’s PR, team
and either we change now, as a team,
or we will die as individuals.
Now, whattaya gonna do?
When people think of PR, like many professions, various stereotypes come to mind. But one image rarely envisioned, is the personal PR pro. That person who has a natural intuition into how to tell their own story—in some cases to even rewrite, and reimagine that story over and over again, into different chapters or even completely different books. Keeping audiences engaged and hungry for the next pitch. A shining example of this, and perhaps the only one in many respects, is the star man himself: David Bowie.
It is with a heavy heart that the world as a whole says good-bye to Bowie—a man of many phases, faces, and tales. It is the rare person who can be attributed with changing the world—and this is in some respects thanks to his ability to influence so many people on so many different levels. In the field of PR, it is our ultimate dream to have the ability to weave a story so strong that it keeps people feeling decades later.
(Image via Victoria & Albert Museum)
Bowie wasn’t just one man with a personal story—he was many. He was David Jones, he was David Bowie, he was Ziggy Stardust, and back again. Each reinvention equipped with its own identity that different audiences attach sentiment to. He was a common man, he was a musician, he was an alien from outer space—he was an actor, a dad, a play write, but most importantly he was true to himself, which made for the very best story of them all.
The goal of PR, from a storytelling perspective, is to completely identify and bring to life a specific message to the masses. An effective PR pro’s work not only makes people pay attention, but it makes them care to about what’s being said—it influences in a positive way the people whose ears it lands on.
Bowie was perhaps the greatest master of PR the world has ever seen—he managed to tell his own unique story, through his own eyes, and in his own way. And the entire world took notice. In fact, right up to the final chapter, Bowie carefully orchestrated the direction of his closing message—through his final album “Blackstar.” which those close to him have confirmed to be a self-epitaph.
He will be missed—across continents, across genres, and across industry, because he was a shining example of them all.
(Image via RollingStone)
Thanks for allowing a BPR tribute to the one and only: Bowie.
Our love for music here at BPR is obvious. A Biggie poster hangs above the CEO’s door. Our mini-fridge is a replica of a Marshall amp. And nearly everyone pops on their headphones at least once a day for a little musical interlude. And unless the office breaks into a spontaneous debate about whether hotdogs are, in fact a sandwich (stay tuned…), the question that always wanders across my mind is: what in the world are people listening to? General consensus is…everything. For me, I prefer preselected playlists on Spotify and occasionally I’ll throw in a YouTube jam sesh or go all intellectual and listen to a podcast (Serial ONLY).
Showing personal flare is an important part of every PR pro’s journey and is encouraged at Barokas PR. The ability to define oneself and push the creative boundaries is what sets this agency apart from all the others. Music is a muse that inspires, calms, energizes, and motivates and so, without further a-do, here are the tunes that help spark my creativity side:
1. Discover Weekly: What does this playlist not have? Except every single song I wanted to find at exactly the right time. Especially for those who pick one song, listening to it on repeat a million times and then complain that a song is “over played”… a duh.
(Image via Spotify)
2. Your Favorite Coffee House: A solid alternative for those of us who can’t coast our way through life in a coffee house – combing our beards and writing our memoirs (at age 22). My bet is that you’ll be inspired to write… something.
(Image via Spotify)
3. Productive Morning: Everyone has those mornings; you know that really never began because the work from the night before never actually stopped. Yeah those exist, and are the bane of some people’s existence.
(Image via Spotify)
4. All the Feels: Ha, What does that even mean you ask? Good Question! I just listen to it so I look cool and stay hip. If that’s what the kids are saying these days. My younger sister thinks I’m out-dated. I’m only 24, she’s 21.
(Image via Spotify)
5. Electronic Study Music: Get caught singing that catching song in the office? Ha yeah me too. My go to for studying in college has turned into the playlist with the beats, but assures I wont be singing out loud. Although, my desk might turn into a drum… if I’ve had too much caffeine.
(Image via Spotify)
6. On Fleek: What does that even mean? In all honesty I don’t know. The reason I started listening to it was because Beyonce is on the cover. Well played Spotify, well played.
(Image via Spotify)
7. Rainy Day: It’s Seattle – does this really need any explanation?
(Image via Spotify)
Music enthusiast or not, everyone should listen to these playlists. Plus, Spotify is free (if you don’t mind listening to the same 3 commercials every 30 minutes). Shake it up, listen and get inspired. The possibilities are literally endless.
When I first stepped into the world of PR – and the professional world altogether for that matter – I felt like an imposter in an industry where everyone was far more qualified than I was (and maybe everyone was). Fortunately, I was brought on to a team of highly creative, passionate people, some of whom also felt the same about their experience, but were giving it 100% regardless. As I rolled up my sleeves, I proceeded to make a fool out of myself at times, but I also managed to throw some wins on the board thanks to a few key leaders around me. One of these leaders shared a mantra with me that I continue to apply to my decision-making process: the “hell yes or no” approach.
“Hell yes or no” is a phrase initially coined by an entrepreneur named Derek Sivers. The model is what you might expect: if your gut tells you to go for something because it excites you enough to evoke a hell yes response, then go for it — every time. That “something” could be anything: a project, a new job, a road trip, or a date. If any part of the scenario isn’t a “hell yes,” then your answer should be “no.”
First, let’s be clear about what the philosophy does not mean:
Don’t let the mantra introduce a “me first, no matter what” mentality — that’s a distortion of the philosophy. “Hell yes or no” is about protecting the limited capacity that each person has for creativity, hard work, and quality contributions. Logic follows that if you spread yourself too thin, each area of your life will likely suffer as a result. Prioritize your finite capacity by understanding what is most meaningful and important to you — which can and should include opportunities to help others and put yourself second (or third or fourth).
“Hell yes or no” doesn’t mean that you prematurely throw in the towel when it comes to learning something new. Watch yourself as you make decisions with “hell yes or no;” if you find that you’re avoiding things simply because they seem too difficult or unknown, take a second look at your motivations (example: “I could train to climb that peak, but I don’t know if I’ll enjoy it, so I better not”). Your biggest passion might be something you don’t know you enjoy yet, so don’t rule out fresh opportunities or limit yourself by focusing only on things you know you love.
You’re not turning your brain off. “Hell yes or no” doesn’t mean that everything is based on your gut reaction or that you shouldn’t weigh decisions logically. The philosophy is actually highly logic-oriented and addresses the important concept of “opportunity cost” head on. For each decision you make, there’s an opportunity cost. If you decide to stay inside and read instead of going to the gym, the cost is that you’re missing the chance to be active and contribute to your overall health. Flipped the other way, if you choose the gym, your cost is that you miss the chance to activate your mind or relax through reading. “Hell yes or no” amplifies the opportunity cost dilemma to a point where each “yes” can be determined in a way that saves time and energy.
“Hell yes or no” done right:
In PR, I know this philosophy has helped me to think carefully about my time and the time of others. When I’m pitching a journalist, I make sure I’m not wasting their time with information or a resource that doesn’t relate to their coverage (ideally, I’m hoping they’ll react with a “hell yes” and we both win). When supporting clients, the same is true for implementing strategies and tactics that bring value to their brand or business in a meaningful way. Does the tactic align with a bigger picture goal for the client? Make sure there’s a “hell yes” at the core of your reasoning.
The outcome of this mantra over time is an adjusted mentality overall. One major result is that you’ll start protecting your time and you’ll deeply understand the value of time — both your own and the time of others. The cliche, “time is money” is a cliche for a reason, and once you go through a few laps of having your own time wasted, the cliche takes on a new meaning. “Hell yes or no” gives you the opportunity to protect your time for the projects that matter most, and it reminds you to think about what might be a “hell yes” for others, too.
Inevitably, you’ll also notice that you work harder (and somehow have more energy). Consider the times when you noticed you were working hard — really hard. Odds are, those were times when the stakes were high and, ideally, when you were extremely passionate about the goal at hand. If you increase the number of projects that are passion-driven, you’ll work a lot harder and you’ll enjoy work more altogether.
When done right, “hell yes or no” can bring extra depth to just about any aspect of life. When every project and opportunity you take on is filtered by this approach, the excess, mundane tasks fall away and you quickly realize that everything you’re invested in has meaning and big picture value.
Last December, I had the privilege of spending two and a half weeks in Africa. An animal lover at heart, I had dreamed of going on a safari since I was young. Last year, after a bicycle accident that required surgery and months of recovery, I decided it was time to stop thinking, “it sure would be nice to X, Y and Z when I have more time,” and do it now. A few days later, tickets were booked and a couple months later, off we went on our great African adventure – first stop: the spectacular and breathtaking Sabi Sands.
Sabi Sands is home to some of the most awe-inspiring animals on the planet including the Big Five: lion, elephant, buffalo, leopard and rhino. While I was trying to not think about work while on vacation, like any PR person, my mind wandered in that direction – but all for a very good reason. The similarities between Mother Nature and the PR industry were so obvious, they were hard to ignore.
Here are a few parallels from the wilds of Africa, supported by some of my favorite photos from the trip:
Protect your territory
Lions in the African bush fight to their death to protect their territory. Like these mighty beasts, PR people are territorial – and often to an extreme. We will invest every resource and ounce of energy we have to battle off something that could damage a client’s brand or reputation. One of the most moving things I experienced on the safari was hearing a lion’s deep, rumbling roar echo across miles of the savannah at night. This sound perfectly represented the passion and fierce attitude that marks a PR pro – day or night.
Protect your offspring (aka clients and teams)
As the owner of a PR agency, I admit it. I’m protective over a lot of things – our team, clients, reputation, quality of work – the list goes on and on. These elements make up a PR pro’s offspring, all of which require care, nurturing and feeding on a daily basis.
If there were a top five list of rules for PR, I would argue that staying calm, cool and collected, even under the toughest of situations, would be number one. And while nobody wants to work with a legion of grinning robots, keeping a smile on your face and a positive attitude goes a long way in building confidence and trust with teammates and clients.
Downtime is a necessity
PR is a fast-paced, high intensity profession that can lead to burn out if you don’t make time for some R&R and your favorite activities. For me, it’s traveling, swimming, biking, running, and weightlifting that keep me centered. Oh, and the occasional lazy day – it’s cheetah approved.
Don’t just scratch the surface, look below it
Unbeknownst to most, hippos are extremely unpredictable and dangerous animals. These creatures are highly territorial and fast on their feet – they can run nearly 20 mph for a short distance. However, it’s easy to see how one can be fooled. A hippo’s eyes and ears peeking out of the water create the perception of a mellow, docile animal. The hippo reminds us to ask questions, do our research and look below the surface before coming to a conclusion about a situation.
Enjoy the adrenaline rush
Ask any PR person what gives them the biggest rush and they’ll tell you the same thing: scoring a big hit or glowing company profile for their client. This exhilarating feeling surfaced over and over again on the safari. Feeling an elephant’s breath on my face as it wandered by two feet away is nothing less than pure magic. And I must apologize to the herds of deer that visit my yard at home – you’ve got nothing on a kudu.
Watch out or you might get screwed
We’ve all had it happen. That time when your exclusive doesn’t hit or a client’s quote is taken out of context. While we do everything in our power to prevent these situations, it’s a good reminder to always have a Plan B in place to circumvent an unexpected circumstance.
Keep your eye on the prize
And last, but not least, PR pros must remember to keep their eye on the prize. Like other professions, PR can be a challenging one if you’re not a master multi-tasker or comfortable working in an environment with constant change. For me, keeping my eye on the prize comes in the form of landing a high profile new client, securing a top tier story, or recruiting that perfect candidate to the team. Now if there were only tigers in Africa. #eyeofthetiger